Romancing the stone
Vanessa Berridge enjoys the Arts-and-crafts-style garden of Wychwood Manor, Oxfordshire
The hills around Wychwood Manor, near Ascott-under-wychwood, Oxfordshire, were once covered with wych elms, now long since vanished, but there is a memento of those ancient trees in a carved roundel of wych elm, encircled by side-turned slates, on the terrace of the house. It is this kind of detail that makes the manor’s garden so rich and interesting.
The Jacobean-style house was built in the 1920s by Lord Furness, a shipping and steel magnate. It looks substantial, yet is only one room deep, so when the Wilmot-sitwells bought the house in 2005, they spent two years restoring and extending it, adding a Georgian wing. This is now enhanced by Magnolia grandiflora and a Veilchenblau rose, underplanted with lavender, Erysimum Bowles’s Mauve and euphorbia.
Such a drawn-out building project gave the couple, and their garden designers, Julian and Isabel Bannerman, the opportunity to plan and develop a vision of what could be done with the hilltop site. The previous owners had tended it lovingly for 40 years, creating a formal Arts-and-crafts garden, with stone balls on every wall and column and with planting designed to peak in the autumn. ‘I felt rather awful when we started again,’ says Fiona Wilmot-sitwell, ‘but I wanted a garden that would be blowsy, summery and feminine, with lots of roses, peonies and philadelphus.’
You might not think that ‘summery and feminine’ are necessarily adjectives synonymous with the Bannerman style, but that’s precisely what the designers have achieved within a strong framework of walls, hornbeam hedging and yew topiary and hedging. In high summer, the garden is afroth, the house covered, front and back, with climbing Albéric Barbier and Sander’s White Rambler roses.
In the borders around the main, walled lawn is a melange of herbaceous planting—delphiniums, geraniums, irises, nepeta, anchusa, salvias and sweet-pea columns—threaded around roses such Charles de Mills, Cécile Brunner, Constance Spry, New Dawn and
Rosa mundi. Twenty rounded columns of yew, almost invisible in the June riot of colour, give winter structure to the wall-backed beds.
The ground had been heavily compacted by the building work and indeed the main lawn and a row of pleached hornbeams have had to be replaced more than once. The long thin house needed to be anchored in the landscape, rather than perching along the ridge ‘like a train’, according to Mrs WilmotSitwell. Widening the south-facing terrace to correct the proportions of house and garden has helped. Lavender now spills out across the stone flags of this terrace, which is important for the outdoor living that the Wilmot-sitwells enjoy, having spent time in Hong Kong and South Africa.
However, it’s the trees that are the chief architects of the garden’s structure. They are what you notice as you approach the house from the north up a steep, established lime avenue focused on the front door. Eight John Downie crab apples and bushes of
Hydrangea paniculata have been planted in yew-backed box compartments by the front steps. Annabelle hydrangeas line the house wall, with four tall, clipped cones of
Prunus lusitanica set along the terrace in large wooden Oxford planters.
Entering the house through a circular porch (added by the Wilmot-sitwells), your eye is immediately drawn across the hall to the terrace, lawn and pond and out to an orchard of apples, pears and walnuts on the hill opposite. Much work has been done to open up this prospect, not least the felling of a line of awkwardly placed trees. The ground was levelled below the formal garden and a stream diverted to feed a lake, which was dug out by Toti Gifford, of Giffords Circus fame, using his pink and zebra-striped diggers.
A double line of yew cones, their tops squared off to help them bush out, stand in an area of rougher grass below the walls, continuing the sightline from formal to informal.
A massive tree-felling and transplanting exercise took place elsewhere, too. Woods encroached on the west side of the house,
obscuring the outlook and hiding a beautiful grey Atlantic cedar that is once more a feature of the garden. Two hundred and eighty trees were transplanted by a tree spade (which looks like a cement mixer, according to Mrs Wilmot-sitwell), with only three lost in the process. Where there was once a dense wood, there is now parkland, visible from the new drawing room window across a ha-ha. This is framed by a patte d’oie of four
allées of hornbeam hedging, each concluding with an oak. Entrances to the allées are marked by characteristic Bannerman greenoak columns and within the allées are compartments of beech, oaks and cedars.
Two other Bannerman hallmarks—pseudoclassical oak gates with triangular pediments and an array of finials—mark the front and back terraces of the house. Another is a large, square pavilion, wrapped in Veilchenblau and Zéphirine Drouhin roses, and with a pitched Cotswold tiled roof. Reminiscent of the summer house at Hidcote, it’s almost like a bandstand, with a wooden balustrade and steps up to a rattan table and chairs furnishing the covered area.
Tucked behind hornbeam hedging, and punctuated by more yew columns, is a peony walk, a glimpse of fields offered down its length through a gap in yew hedging. Here, hellebores start the season, followed by peonies, including Duchesse de Nemours, Kelway’s Scented Rose, Sarah Bernhardt and red-eyed Festiva Maxima, interspersed with white lilies and with Rosa rugosa and R.complicata. Verbena bonariensis and cleomes, grown over the winter in the greenhouse, maintain interest later in the season.
Below the pavilion is a wall-framed court where the existing pool has been linked by a rill to a tiny cascade bubbling out from beneath the pavilion. More yew pillars appear here among buddleias to attract bees and butterflies, lavender and rosemary for scent and Alchemilla mollis. Rosa Albéric Barbier foams over the pillars that frame the garden’s central view.
The Wilmot-sitwells chose well when selecting the Bannermans, for the designers have a remarkable ability to create gardens with the sense of history and timelessness they have given to Wychwood Manor. Another view of the Arts-and-crafts gazebo, seen from one side of the voluptuous double peony border
I wanted a garden that would be blowsy, summery and feminine’
Above: Yew cones focus the view back to the house. Facing page: In high summer, the house is covered with roses such as R. gallica Versicolor
Above: The waterlily pond focuses on a Lutyens-esque rill and semi-circular ‘source’, beneath a gazebo in the Arts-and-crafts style. Facing page: A fine cedar presides over new stone walling, steps and carved finials